Petroglyphs have left their historical marks

The petroglyphs at Parkers Landing are still revealing their secrets, but those secrets are constantly threatened.

Ken Burkett, executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, and Victor Stahlman, a Clarion University student, recently uncovered a petroglyph.

Petroglyphs are a form of rock art that consist of designs carved into the surface of natural rock. Burkett said the forms include lines, dots, numbers, letters, humans, animals, supernatural beings or astronomical images.

There are fewer than 40 Native American petroglyph sites recorded in the Pennsylvania Archaeological Site Survey files.

“The majority of these are found in prominent locations, near water, especially larger rivers,” said Burkett, a field associate of the Carnegie Museum whose visit was part of the Clarion University Anthropology Club’s speaker series. “The images can be found in clusters of a few to groups of hundreds. Rarely are petroglyphs found in upland settings.

“I think the petroglyphs represent oral traditions and legends. We think some of these stories go very deep in time to some of the earliest migrations into the new world.”

According to Burkett, the petroglyphs are only visible during times of extremely low water, and can be seen only during June, July and August. At this time of year, the rocks are under about 4 feet of water.

“That is typical for most of these sites,” Burkett said. “These were carved on bedrock. They were not carved on random boulders.”

The prehistoric figures vary from the post-contact period. Burkett said the prehistoric figures are rounded at the bottom and heavily eroded.

The post-contact carvings are “v” shaped at the bottom due to the metal tools used. Other carvings were done with a chisel.

First of its kind

The Parkers Landing site was the first archeological site to be recorded in Clarion County. There are now 288 sites recorded in the county.

The site was reported to archeologists by the landowner, but Burkett said he has found no local references to the rocks.

“Local people certainly knew about the rocks, but the site did not receive the visitation of other sites,” he said. “It was also spared the damage that we saw at other sites.

According to Burkett, there is some graffiti at the site that dates to 1857.

The original recording in 1962 at the site denoted 16 figures at Parkers Landing. There are now 194 figures recorded at the site.

Of those figures, Burkett said, 15 are modern (carved by white men), nine are historic (carved by Native Americans with metal tools) and 171 prehistoric.

Burkett said there are 14 carvings of birds or parts of birds, a crayfish, 15 humans, eight reptiles and 67 figures that are geometric.

“We have to remember that the Native American people who carved these figures had a totally different meaning than we see,” he said.

Burkett noted the figures of humans all have a specific pose with hands raised. He said similar figures have been found as far south as Mexico.

“Interestingly, none of the figures overlap,” he said. “In the Southwest, the various groups of people would paint over the work of the earlier people.”

One carving may be of an atlatl, a prehistoric hunting device that predates the bow and arrow.

“If that is the case, then the carving may date back to pre-900 A.D.,” Burkett said. “I don’t think these are graffiti in any way, shape or form. I think they have something to do with the use of the river during the summer months. Food was easily available and people were traveling.”

‘They marked the site’

Burkett said on either end of the site are large holes that he believes were used to insert poles. The poles helped anyone coming down the river identify the site.

“They marked the site,” he said. “This site repeats itself down the river. The rest of the sites are under the lock-and-dam system.”

Burkett said this is the closest source of good chert for much of the area above Franklin.

“During the summer, these glacial gravel bars are exposed. They could gather their flint for the next 12 months,” he said.

Chert from the Parkers Landing site, Burkett said, has been found at the Fishbasket site in Clarion County and elsewhere.

“What you had at Parkers Landing was a kind of rendezvous,” he said. “Groups of people who did not live together but knew of each other would meet, trade, tell stories and even marry.”

Burkett doesn’t believe the sites were sacred.

“If they were taboo, you would forbid anyone from traveling down the river on the Clarion County side,” he said. “I believe the site was made to be open and visible. It was used publicly.”

Burkett said each spring the area would have to be cleaned of sediment. He had used a bucket and a scrub brush to clean the rocks of sediment.

Another problem is the carvings are also being attacked by nature.

“An invasive species is embedding itself into the rock and is starting to cause damage to the site,” he said. “There is a change happening.

Burkett said he has seen changes in the rocks during the past 25 years, including a turtle carving that has been almost completely eroded.

And, the site is subject to the effects of the river.

“We have had rocks weighing 200 pounds that moved into the river and then the next year moved back again,” he said.

Burkett is continuing to work at Parkers Landing. A few test sites were opened to determine if the local population had any connection with the carvings.

To date, he has found what could have been a burial site. A few artifacts – projectile points and ceramics – were uncovered.

“It is a fun site to work, but it needs a lot of students to work on it,” he said.